by Bryan Banning

Big Cypress National Preserve Branch Out Trip (January 2016)

The Branch Out trip to Big Cypress National Preserve focused on environmental protection. Before the area was federally owned and protected as a National Preserve, it was a swamp, home to indig​enous Indian tribes and countless Cypress trees, birds, and gators among other flora and fauna. In the late 1960s, plans were underway to create an airport in south Florida with runways and monorails and a new interstate highway that would connect both coasts. It would be over 5 times the size of JFK airport in New York (which served as our connector airport on the way home). After an environmental impact study (the first ever conducted in Florida from what I hear), and strong opposition from local residents the airport construction was halted. The noise, light, and vehicular and pedestrian traffic would have decimated Big Cypress Swamp and all the life that it offers. Shortly after construction was halted, the over-700,000 acre area became the nation’s first federally protected National Preserve. During the trip, we not only cleared out two sites full of man-made eyesores, but we also helped out the environment by using reusable water bottles instead of disposable plastic ones and used real dishes that we washed instead of disposable plastic/paper. This trip provided a real tactile illustration of the problem of environmental pollution. Unlike air or water pollution, this land pollution was very easy to see because these objects did not break down into the soil like smoke disappears into air or oil gets dispersed in the vast oceans.

The small part that we played last week is symbolic of the work that needs to be done all over the world to protect the one planet that we all share. It is scary to think that had an environmentally conscious person (which was much more rare then than today) not recommend studying the impact of the airport on the swamp, there would likely be a huge airport there today and we would never have known that such a great refuge ever existed. One night we participated in an astronomy program where we were able to see one of the starriest skies east of the Mississippi. Due to the low levels of development and light pollution, we were able to clearly see the stars, unlike any night sky I have seen in the U.S. It was quite impressive. Another thing I noticed was how quiet it was; there was virtually no noise pollution. Even in a National Park unit, that is quite a rare find. Wild Florida is quite different from the Florida that most all of us are familiar with: sandy beaches, condos, mass development, etc.

During the pre-trip meetings, we learned a little about the park, the difference between a National Preserve and a National Park, and a general idea of what we would be doing. I learned the most about the history of Big Cypress, and the past and present issues affecting it during the service portion of the trip from the park intern, and the maintenance guys who drove the swamp buggies. Our job was to clear out two sites. The first was one where a home burnt down, the second was an old abandoned hunting camp. We picked up trash and hauled it out. The litter ranged from small shards of broken glass to old rusty, broken down army trucks, big tires that had been snugly implanted a foot into the soft, slick, muddy soil. There were large pieces of tin, tarps and large tents that had roots growing through them, making it quite challenging to remove. It was hard to use a crowbar because it often sank into the soil providing little to no leverage. Large carpets that tore apart in skinny strands had layers of earth on top of them and they seemed to go deeper and deeper into the ground the more you dug. I remember thinking to myself, this would have been a whole lot easier had these people just cleaned up their things when they left. I learned, however, that they had little incentive to do this, besides being a good person and having a clear conscience. The landowners who lived in Big Cypress when it became a National Preserve were able to stay in their homes until they died, at which point the park service would assume control of the land. It could not be sold or passed down to their children.

I’ve always been interested and active in protecting the environment. I plan to continue doing that and I am more inclined to sign up for similar Branch Out trips in the future. I plan on applying for a summer internship with the National Park Service as a result of this trip. If everyone did simple things that they have complete control over, like throwing away trash and recycling, we would greatly reduce our negative impact on the earth. For both of the sites we worked in, there was no reason why there should have been all that we found there. People are just selfish and put themselves and their wants and needs above those of the environment, which supports all life. It is truly quite a shame. I plan on educating others when the opportunity presents itself on the importance of protecting the environment and what we can do to play our part in that effort.